Not a Trace: The Vestigia Trinitatis in Karl Barth

The doctrine of the vestigia trinitatis has a long and distinguished history in theology, going back at least to Tertullian and formulated with some rigor by Augustine. The general idea here is that within creation (immanent to it, one might say) there is a kind of ‘trinitarian disposition’ (to quote Barth). Creation in itself and as such is ordered trinitarian-ly. Standard examples include faculties of the human person such as willing, remembering and understanding (Augustine) while Tertullian draws out examples from nature such as fountain, river and stream. All these are traces of the Trinity – examples in nature or in humanity as such of three-in-one-ness .

Barth disputes this. Well, he does and he doesn’t. He doesn’t dispute that there are such traces, clearly there are all kinds of three-in-ones in nature if one looks hard enough. What Barth disputes is what lies behind the idea of traces of the Trinity, which he takes to be this: that there are two sources, or two roots, of our knowledge of the Trinity, one from nature, and one  from revelation. By positing two roots, Barth believes that the mystery, power and grace of the Trinity in revelation has been compromised. Barth develops his criticisms in CD I.1, beginning on page 333-334, and it is here that we see a theme that is at the core of so many of his critiques:

The concern here was with an essential trinitarian disposition supposedly immanent in some created realities quite apart from their possible conscription by God’s revelation. (p. 334)

It can be seen here that Barth isn’t opposed to traces of the Trinity full stop – what he’s concerned with is the idea that there is a Trinitarian given-ness in creation, apart from conscription by revelation. This is key to a good deal of Barth’s thought. If something is a trace of the Trinity, it is because God presses it into service as such. The heart of Barth’s critique of the traces of the Trinity, however, is the idea of two roots:

If it be acknowledged that there are vestigia trinitatis…then the question obviously arises – and this is why we must discuss the matter in the present context – whether we do not have to assume a second root of the doctrine of the trinity…we should then have to ask whether the development of the doctrine of the Trinity must not also, at least, be traced back to the insight into these traces of the Trinity that are present and perceptible in the created world quite apart from the biblical revelation. And if this question be admitted, then the further question can hardly be avoided: Which of the two roots of the doctrine that both call for consideration is the true and primary root, and which is a secondary “runner”? (pp. 334-335)

The dilemma here is stark. Clearly, if there are two roots, one of them is primary and one of them is secondary. On what basis is such a question decided? And if the question is decided in favour of the traces of the Trinity, surely this renders biblical revelation unnecessary, or relegates it to the status of merely helping to confirm what we already could in principle derive from nature alone. If we do derive the doctrine of the Trinity from nature alone, then Barth argues that we are left with a god of myth which is ‘strictly immanent’ to creation. Now, it is obvious that none of the ‘older theology’, as Barth calls it, intentionally tried to supplant revelation with nature or relegate revelation to a servant status. But, Barth asks, isn’t this precisly what they did? Barth notes that there is a problem here at a grammatical level:

…it was found…not that language could grasp the revelation, but that revelation, the very revelation correctly and normatively understood in the formulated dogma, could grasp the language, i.e., that on the basis of revelation enough elements could be found in the familiar language used by a;; to be able to speak about revelation, not exhaustively or appropriately or correctly, but still to some extent intelligibily and perspicuously… (p. 340)

This is another key factor in Barth (and one that Torrance developed well): reasoning backwards from the event of revelation. Human language can never lay claim to revelation, but by grace, revelation can press human language into service. The condition for the possibility of Trinitarian knowledge resides solely in God. What Barth sees the ‘older theology’ doing, then, is this reverse-reasoning:

When men wanted to talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or unitas in trinitatae or trinitas in unitate, they opened their eyes and ears and found they could and should venture to refer, with this end in view, to spring, stream and lake, or weight, number and measure, or mens, noitiia and amor, not because these things were in and of themselves sutiable for the purpose but becuase they were adapted to be appropriated, or, as it were, commandeered as images of the Trinity, as ways of speaking about the Trinity, because men who knew God’s revelation in Scripture thought they might be given the power to say what in and of themselves they naturally do not want to say and cannot say. (p. 340)

Thus it is only on the basis of revelation that anyone can speak about the Trinity. Barth makes an interesting observation here about the nature of this kind of speaking: whereas a good deal of the traces of the Trinity were taken to be apologetic in nature, Barth sees it primarily as polemical:

What happened, them was not that they tried to explain the Trinity by the world but on the contrary they tried to explain the world by the Trinity in order to be able to speak about the Trinity in this world. It was not a matter of apologetics but of polemics, not of demonstrating the possibility of revelation in the world of human reason but establishing the actual possibilities of the world of human reason as the scene of revelation. (p. 341)

Barth argues that the confidence of the older theology wasn’t a confidence in the power of reason to discover traces of the Trinity but of the power of revelation over against reason. There is, however, a problem, and Barth takes this to be the substitution of illustration for interpretation. Interpretation, for Barth, is ‘saying the same thing in other words’, while illustration is ‘saying the same thing in other words‘. Illustrations, for Barth, reflect a lack of trust in revelations self-evidential character, and a need to shore up and confirm by means of something other than revelation:

Is not even the desire to illustrate revelation, let alone the claim that illustration is essential, let alone the assertion that this or that is an illustration of revelation, already to be regarded as tantamount to a desertion of revelation? Does it not imply that unbelief has already taken place? Does not the transition from interpretation to illustration already stand as such under the interdict: Thou shalt not make unto thee any likeness? (p. 345)

For Barth, this likeness of a Trinity derived from nature is nothing more than a false god, and a man-shaped one at that. A god derived from the second root is nothing more than a god of this age. A god derived from man’s consciousness is nothing more than man as a god, and not the God who ‘confronts free man in sovereignty’. There is, however, a vestigium trinitatis that Barth says is true:

There is, of course…a true vestigium trinitatisin creatura, an illustration of revelation, but have neither to discover it nor bring it into force ourselves. As we have tried to understand it as the true and legitimate point of the vestigia doctrine, it consists in the form which God Himself in His revelation has assumed in our language, world and humanity. What we hear when with our human ears and concepts we listen to God’s revelation, what we preceive (and can perceive as men) in Scripture, what proclamation of the Word of God actually is in our lives – is the thrice single voice of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. This is how God is present for us in his revelation. This is how He Himself obviously creates a vestigium of Himself and His triunity. We are not adding anything but simply saying the same thing when we point out that God is present for us in the threefold form of His word, in His revelation, in Holy Scripture, and in proclamation. (p. 347)

These true traces of the Trinity have their being by the grace of God in His revelation alone. There is, then, but one root of the doctrine of the Trinity, and that is revelation, because it is only in revelation that we have to do with a God who is not a god of this age, or a man-god.

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